Remembrances of Times Past

Take a look to the left. Up a bit. There. No there. See that little book cover thumbnail and the recommendation that you buy some books? Well, that there's Head, a fun little urban fantasy thriller thing I wrote about a bazillion years ago. Mr Stuart said some nice things about it a while back, and he did that natty little bit of cover art for me, but I've never really done anything with it as a manuscript. Very few people in the world have actually read the bloody thing, which kind of begs the question why did I write it?

The answer to that is probably a post in itself. Or perhaps an amusing author introduction to an anniversary edition. It's not giving too much of the book away to say that it features a talking, severed head. Decapitation has been a potent image of horror for me since before I can remember. Perhaps I was a French nobleman* in a former life and lost my head on the guillotine. Whatever the reason, I am very sensitive around the neck area, and particularly disliked that bit in The Omen where David Warner lost his head to a sheet of plate glass.

But I digress. Head, the book, stemmed out of that primal fear, but it's not really horror. I remember at the time desperately trying to come up with a label for what it was. I settled on magical realism, unaware perhaps of what I was really talking about. Urban fantasy as a genre hadn't reared its vampiric head by then, and as for the New Weird, well China Mieville hadn't even dreamed of Perdido Street Station when I finished the first draft of Head. I think I finished the second draft around about the same time that King Rat came out.**

So I had this book, slim but strange, and no idea really what it was. Then it got put to one side as I moved down to Wales at the start of the millennium. I toyed with the idea of sending it out to some agents and publishers, but then got distracted by newer, shinier things. I wrote some unmemorable SF, and then followed it up with the first three books in the Ballad of Sir Benfro trilogy.*** A few short stories along the way, a couple of award-shortlisted crime novels with a supernatural twist, a straight as they come thriller of epic brevity. If I try hard enough I can even pretend I've been busy this past decade. Not much actually published, mind you, but it kept me off the streets.

And always at the back of my mind were those nice things that Mr Stuart said about Head, a vague feeling that, of my body of work, it was the one that had the most worth and the least exposure. Soon, I told myself about once every couple of months, I'll dust down the old manuscript and see if I can't do something with it.

Well, finally I did. Printed up a copy and took it with me on a long train journey last weekend. And you know what? It wasn't that bad.

Not good enough to be published, of course. It's full of the schoolboy writing errors I was prone to a dozen or more years ago. I've probably written a million words since then, so I ought to be putting them in better order now. What fascinates me and annoys in equal measure, however, is how much needs to be changed simply because the world has moved on since the late 90's.

The main protagonist (I won't call him a hero, as he's not terrible heroic) smokes. I've never been a smoker, so I don't really know why I decided that Charlie should be, except that I set out to make him as objectionable a character as possible, and to me someone who lights up wherever and whenever he pleases, without a thought for those around him, is about as objectionable as they come. Unlike some writers out there, I didn't become a smoker just so that I could better write the experience - see earlier blogs about my love of research. The fact of his smoking is not really a problem, though. What doesn't work any more is where he smokes. In the pub, in restaurants, in his hotel room, in a taxi. It's been years now since the Scottish Government banned smoking in all these places. He's not allowed to be an arsehole in this way -  lighting up wheresoever he pleases just makes him seem an idiot, so I can't do that. Instead of being a prick, he has become the victim of the nanny state, forced out onto cold pavements to feed his addiction. I still can't drum up any sympathy for him, but that character trait doesn't work as well as once it did.

Nobody in the book has a mobile phone, either. Sure, they were around when I started writing it. I'm old enough to remember the yuppy bricks of the mid-eighties, but I didn't get my own first mobile until after Head was finished.**** This is less of a problem than the smoking, as the world the book inhabits harks back to an earlier, more magical time. It still jars as I'm reading it though. Mobiles aren't a luxury item anymore; they've become an essential part of the fabric of society. The book needs to acknowledge that at least.

There are other little things that niggle. The book's set in Edinburgh, but obviously there's no mention of the traffic buggery that's gone on in Princes Street and George Street as the new tram lines are being installed. A chunk of the action centres around Roslin Chapel, which at the time of writing had just been closed over with a steel scaffold and roof as part of a restoration project. This has now been removed, and of course Dan Brown's unmentionable book means that a few more people know about the place than did back then. 

These problems are not insurmountable, of course. Head needs a thorough rewrite anyway if it is to stand any chance of being taken seriously, so I can make changes where necessary. It's been a fascinating trip down memory lane though, and yet another reminder of why I really prefer writing pure fantasy. In twelve years time, the world of Sir Benfro will only have changed in ways I want it to.

* I hope not. I mean, French?
** not, I would hasten to add, that I think Head is anywhere near as good, or frustrating, as Mieville's work. His stories are breathtaking, but his love of complex language and obscure sentence structure does tend toward the obfuscatory.
*** There are four. It's hard to explain so I won't bother. If you're really interested, read the entire archive of posts to this blog. The reason's in there somewhere.
**** twelve years on, I'm on my third. Not a classic early adopter, me.


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